You may recall that my previous article, the “Politics of Failure” sang the praises of entrepreneurs because, among their many extraordinary talents, they possess the ability to turn failures on their head and call them by a new name. As according to the Effectuation Theory, managers differ from entrepreneurs in this respect: the managers often see failure coming from a mile away and shrug their shoulders, believing the cards have simply dealt them a dissatisfactory hand – “Well, that’s that!” they proclaim as they close up shop. But, entrepreneurs see that iceberg looming ahead and veer the ship with full horsepower. Even what seems fated, inevitable, is only one version of the story. The story that entrepreneurs live into is entirely one of their own narrative, where no one is the victim, and there is always a chance at redemption.

And so it’s only fitting that entrepreneurs may view success differently than a ‘manager’ might. It isn’t measured by monstrous profit margins or Forbes awards (however, we won’t say no to those!). I asked members of the Next Gen Summit community – the most entrepreneurial group of go-getters I know – about their personal definitions of success, and just like their definitions of failure did, these may surprise you.

“Living free and fulfilled.” – Cauvee Call-vay

“The privilege to be able to work on and explore things you love and the flexibility to be able to balance it all as relationships, priorities, and interests shift.” – Zach Resnick

“Knowing you did your best, to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” – Brandon Gustafson

“Seeing the concepts and strategies I create help others find their own successes!” -Sunny Su

“Being personally and professionally fulfilled, whatever that means for you.” – Samir Goel

“Confidence on your individual journey.” – Justin Lafazan

“The pursuit of the fulfillment of your purpose.” – Jesse Krim

“Being excited about the next thing due on Trello!” -Titus Lungu

These quotes are, undeniably, stories of personal journeys and triumph after tribulations. It is hard work – the stuff of upheaval and regeneration – to find fulfillment in your purpose. This fulfillment makes the next item due on Trello something to look forward to rather than a laborious chore and grants us renewed inspiration when we can utilize our own genius spaces to motivate the success of others.

You see, there’s something different about finding a purpose – the years that go into understanding our natural gifts and how we can best equip them to give them to the world is not a narrative about how we can sell or profit based on who we are but rather, how we can live a life of our own creation. For entrepreneurs, the lives we create in alignment with our purposes take root and bloom in the form of companies that come to breathe a life of their own. Giving our all to them is what keeps us up all night, burning the midnight oil, energized by inspiration rather than espresso and longing for completion rather than for accolades. That sheer energy is the fuel that moves us towards the success of awards and accomplishments, tenfold the accolades’ worth when we feel we have succeeded in alignment with this purpose.

It is a different sensation to feel time slip through our fingers as we’re talking a mile a minute with advisors or adding a creative flair to a brand we visualized into manifestation than the feeling of making more money that we’ve made before. The two are often connected, this is undeniable – but the latter will never feel warm or success-like without the former. We need that sense of fulfillment and purpose to thrive.

This, in so many ways, provides a context for understanding why entrepreneurs glare failure in the face and say, “not on my watch.” You cannot fail at your purpose. You cannot fail if you’re fulfilled. The energy that rises and pulses when we’re doing Our Thing is enough to carry us through rejections or disappointments or weeks with no leads. In fact, it may hardly feel like a failure at all.

It reminds me of my own story – at 18, starting a nonprofit to donate empowering literature to women around the world. I had a colossal dream that if I could just take the globe into my hands, there would be no limit to the places my messages and my books could travel, and no girl out there would feel separated from her sisters on other continents who spoke other languages and lived foreign adventures. Literature has and will always be the medium of connection and hope to me.

This dream kindled my imagination when I would slave summer days away in coffee shops, or criss-cross applesauce on my childhood bed, forgetting to eat lunch or dinner or to turn on the light when the sun set outside. As I reflect now, I remember there were only 500 books donated. 500 books. A world that I had felt I captured, with millions of people who could read and absorb, but I had only donated 500 books. To so many, it would seem like a failure. What I set out to do I hardly reached. But still, today, I feel how deeply that fulfillment lit a fire within me that I could do, be, and become a success of any magnitude as long as the pace of my work matched the tempo of my passion to do it.

So perhaps the success we were taught in the history books – the “Big House, Big Car, Big Money” triple threat – are not goals we set to attain, but rather circumstances we stumble into when we’re lost in a daze of our own imagination, planted firmly in our own fulfillment. The greatest entrepreneurs do not beg or barter or steal to achieve the highest heights – simply put, they create. They give the energy of their being to the world and while giving, give it all. There is no more success, there is no more failure – it is just the entrepreneur, their personal narrative, and the steady tempo of fulfillment that carries their work through the night.


  • Haley Hoffman Smith

    Speaker & Author of Her Big Idea

    Haley Hoffman Smith is the author of Her Big Idea, a book on ideation and women's empowerment which debuted as a Top 3 Bestseller. She has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and the Washington Examiner, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown in May 2018. She is the founder of the Her Big Idea Fund in partnership with Brown's Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, which awards grants to women who apply with BIG ideas, and Her Big Lash, a cosmetics company.

    At Brown, she was the President of Women’s Entrepreneurship and started the first-ever women’s entrepreneurship incubator. She speaks on topics such as women's empowerment, innovation, social impact, and personal branding regularly across companies and college campuses, most recently at Harvard, TEDx, SoGal Ventures, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and more.